Why Amber Rudd is a perfect fit for the Theresa May cabinet

The Home Secretary is disengaged, with a lack of drive and an inability to grasp a real political problem.

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It would be a grotesque exaggeration to say Amber Rudd has ever been wildly popular among her fellow Tory MPs. Her constituents in Hastings and Rye appear to have cooled, too. Her majority of 4,796 in 2015 verged on the marginal, but not so much as the 346 to which it crashed in 2017. The recent rise in violent crime in urban England – notably a rash of murders and stabbings in London – presented Rudd with an opportunity to assert her authority, both personally and on behalf of the government of which, as Home Secretary, she is a prominent member. It was an opportunity that, to the dismay of her colleagues, she chose to ignore, and then to botch.

Tories are painfully aware that their reputation as “the party of law and order” has been consigned to history. Theresa May used her incumbency of the Home Office from 2010 to 2016 to build her unenviable reputation for indecisiveness; and she certainly proved no obstacle to the George Osborne cuts that greatly reduced the number of police officers on Britain’s streets. Rudd has been largely invisible, and (like May before her) largely the uncomprehending mouthpiece of her officials and advisers. She has done nothing to inspire the confidence of backbenchers who like Tory home secretaries to speak up for the rule of law and to identify fundamental differences between right and wrong.

A story has done the rounds for years that when Rudd decided to enter politics her only hesitation was over which party to join. Colleagues detect that Rudd is an incipient liberal who detests having to advocate policies that might result in such apparently illiberal outcomes as more criminals going to prison, or stricter controls being placed on immigration. So, like her predecessor, she keeps quiet. And, as with May’s tin ear on emoting or connecting with the public, she had failed to meet any of those bereaved in the recent spate of murders.

Yet she could not avoid confronting the surge in knife crime. Sensing public unease, Tory MPs wanted a clear lead on tackling the problem: not least because the stabbings proliferated among young people from communities about which Tories are reputed not to care. Days passed and nothing happened. And then last Sunday Rudd gave a demoralising television interview in which she denied that the 14 per cent fall in police numbers since 2010 had fed the rise in crime. Unfortunately for her, a report by her own department (that she said she had not seen) reached the opposite conclusion. Then she launched a violent crime strategy with a public performance that suggested she was a casual passer-by of the problem rather than the person with whom that particular buck stopped. Her new strategy does not even mention police cuts.

The Home Office has been a graveyard for ambitious politicians, and Rudd appears to have reached the cemetery gates. The impression she has given since she took the job – that she is entirely disengaged from it and the unpleasant realities it entails – has been confirmed by the blistering incompetence of her handling of this question.

Although it is urban crime that has brought the law and order crisis to a head, Tories have been painfully aware of it for several years. The near-invisibility of police in rural areas has encouraged burglaries and drug crimes there. Some have long thought Rudd was not up to the job, and their numbers are rising. She seems clueless about tackling drug-related murders, which have risen from 50 per cent of homicides in 2014-15 to 57 per cent in 2016-17.

To make matters worse, some Tory MPs were outraged that, when a 78-year-old man killed a professional burglar less than half his age, Rudd had nothing to say on the matter once the householder learned he would not be charged. She fails to understand her role in maintaining the morale of her party’s natural supporters – and of the rest of the public.

But then Rudd’s inertia, her disengagement, her lack of drive and her inability to grasp a real political problem when it confronts her make her a perfect fit for the May cabinet. Unwittingly, it appears to be emulating Belgium in showing that a nation can muddle along without a government for months or even years. A few civil servants are handling Brexit, but with the exception of that (and some hyperactivity by Michael Gove) nothing much else appears to be happening. Problems of policing, education, social services and housing that have contributed to the outbreak of gang warfare in some urban areas, and left the Tory party’s core vote believing that they are not being policed, are scarcely addressed. Other than changing Jeremy Hunt’s job title there appear to be no plans to manage the growing scandal of social care, which consigns vulnerable elderly people effectively to rot for want of provision for them. The NHS is unsustainable without reform, but no salvage plan is in sight. The increasingly disregarded Foreign Secretary shakes his fist at the Russians, forgetting that one fundamental rule of diplomacy is having credible military force to back it up – something the Defence Secretary, who seems to have appointed himself to his job, appears incapable of securing. And so it goes on.

The trouble is that the Belgian solution does not work in a heavily centralised state such as ours. If you lack an engaged, pro-active government then stuff happens, such as teenage drugs gangs running around murdering each other and, from time to time, any unfortunate innocent who gets in the way. May set Rudd an appalling example during her six years at the Home Office by pretending that such ugly matters could be ignored. They can’t, as Rudd is painfully finding out – and too late to rescue the reputation she would like to have. 

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war